As part of the Department of Defense’s next generation of network and communication efforts, officials are embracing the approach of “operate through,” a common concept of being able to rely on infrastructure already in place, such as existing bridges, roads or rail systems. The department wants to apply the concept to communications infrastructure and operate through fifth-generation wireless network communications, or 5G, commercial infrastructure.
In such a 5G environment, the potential for cloud computing operating through a mobile network or 5G hardware is powerful, according to Daniel Massey, program lead, Operate Through, 5G-to-Next G Initiative, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Department of Defense.
“It is that ability to bring the cloud to the edge, rather than have to go back and reach the cloud,” Massey states. “It is the ability to say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to have a backhaul connection.’ Instead, some of that cloud computing can come with me, come right up to the edge, and that changes how I think about reliability.”
Naturally, with this emerging 5G—and later 6G—capability, officials have cybersecurity, scale and other concerns to address before being able to reliably leverage commercial devices, networks and hardware for military use.
“The Department of Defense has the ability to build a bridge across any river, anywhere in the world,” Massey says. “That’s an important capability we will always have. But that’s not the way we usually begin an operation. When possible, we want to operate through current roads, current bridges, current rail lines. That’s standard. Now let’s apply that same idea to communications infrastructure. I would like the ability to operate through 5G commercial infrastructure, when it makes sense for DoD to do it. But we also need to think about what does it mean to operate through the existing commercial infrastructure.”
In addition to the “Operate Through” program of the Defense Department’s 5G-to-Next G Initiative, the effort includes “Accelerate” that involves the installation of 5G infrastructure at U.S. military bases—with 5G installed at about 16 facilities so far—and “Innovate,” which is examining the shape of sixth generation or wireless communications, or 6G, and beyond, Massey states.
“There’s a great component called ‘Accelerate,’ which is putting 5G on DoD bases around the country,” he explains. “We got another piece of the 5G initiative called ‘Innovate,’ which is looking at what happens in 6G and beyond. It is really looking out towards the future Gs. I’ve got the piece in the middle, ‘Operate Through.’”
Massey notes that with the huge investment being made in 5G across the globe, the Defense Department needs to make sure it is aligned with that commercial infrastructure—whether it is leveraging carrier networks or running a U.S. military proprietary or private limited network operating across equipment that comes from a standard commercial vendor.
“I don’t want to be competing against that,” the program leader suggests. “I want to be leveraging that whenever possible. Our big goal is to say we’re aligned where 5G communications is going in terms of standards, in terms of ability to leverage off-the-shelf hardware, and the ability to occasionally leverage commercial infrastructure that’s being deployed at a tremendous rate around the world. I want to have all those options. That means I want to have systems that conform to standards like the 3GPP standards that are driving 5G.”
Under this type of 5G commercial infrastructure, the presentation of cloud computing and services may also look different, Massey stresses. “[It] is not just leveraging the cloud in the traditional sense but pushing that cloud all the way to the edge,” he notes. “Why does that matter for DoD? It matters because of a couple of reasons. One, of course, is latency. It’s simple physics, speed of light transmission, that sort of thing. The closer I get to the edge, the lower I can push the latency down.”
With a much lower latency, cloud computing via 5G could shift the U.S. military’s thinking about operations at the tactical edge. “That cloud latency at the edge becomes really important,” he emphasizes. “It’s something that we really need to be able to leverage from a DoD standpoint.”
Moreover, 5G infrastructure will push more of that cloud potential to formerly disconnected environments, Massey continues.
“For example, I [was recently] in San Diego talking to our partners at AFRICOM [U.S. Africa Command],” he shares. “AFRICOM is a great example of an AOR [area of responsibility] where backhaul to the cloud may not be as quick and as reliable as one might expect. So, if I could push some of that edge computing all the way effectively to the tower itself, all the way to the 5G radio portion, that opens up a number of possibilities. That allows me to offload some of the more intense compute from small devices on to edge compute servers. It really gives me that cool opportunity to do more on the edge.”
While Massey was not able to go into detail about specific examples of the military’s cloud and edge computing uses with 5G—given security concerns—he stresses the potential of having that mighty computing for tactical operations.
“Imagine now that you have very powerful computing, pushed very close to the edge, so your latency has gone down and your reliability and your backup connectivity productivity has gone up,” the program leader states. “That gives you a number of interesting use cases.”
Massey offers that end users could expect to see similar cloud functionality through 5G at the edge that they experience presently in on-premise or hybrid cloud platforms, although it is early on in even having such availability.
“That’s part of the promise of 5G,” he cites. “This is in various states of deployment. I think it’s clear that the 5G edge right now is not at the same level of the well-known cloud providers, but it’s getting there. There are some places where it is quite possible already. And I would say not just for desktop computers but think about super computers and servers coming with me to the edge.”
It may not necessarily be the traditional cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure that are supplying cloud platforms or services at the 5G edge, Massey continues.
“The very interesting question is, will the carrier be offering that?” the program leader asks. “How will the cloud providers and 5G carriers merge together? How would the services [be offered]? No matter who it is though, we will have pretty impressive edge computing.”
Cybersecurity to protect 5G-related cloud will have to be in place, including zero-trust architecture, Massey adds. “I would just add that especially for operating through commercial infrastructure, whether it’s just commercial hardware or if it is the whole 5G commercial carrier network, zero trust becomes increasingly critical.”
Additionally, the intention is to leverage edge cloud and 5G outside of the continental United States (CONUS). “Operate Through is looking much beyond just that and it is probably more geared away from CONUS than in CONUS,” he offers. “How can we operate through commercial 5G anywhere in the world. And when the Defense Department says anywhere in the world, we typically mean more than Texas, California, Georgia, Hawaii. It is amazing to have this going on in those 16 CONUS bases, but Operate Through wants to also operate anywhere in the world. It is much stronger than that.
“From my perspective, the two main advantages [of 5G for cloud] are the latency and the reliability or accessibility,” Massey says. “Operating in a CONUS environment, the cloud is there. But as I move into different regions, operating somewhere in a remote corner of the world, cloud reliability, cloud access may be a little weaker. But if the cloud can come with me, that’s the second big piece. And that might be bigger than the latency.”